Undoing gender socialization: beyond the pinks and blues

Simran Luthra

My very young nephew declared: “I don’t want pink colour, give me blue. Pink is girls’ colour.” I was stunned. I tried to convince him that it wasn’t the case, but to no avail. He was adamant. There was no convincing him otherwise. I was confident that the home could not have been the origin of this gender stereotype; which meant that it could only have been his school or the neighbourhood peer group – the limited social spheres of my three-year-old nephew.

Unfortunately he was too young for me to explain the history of pink and blue. Until the middle of the 20th century, pink was the colour for boys and blue the colour for girls. Pink was associated with red – the colour of blood and hence considered more masculine in nature. Blue, on the other hand, was associated with the Virgin Mary, and was considered a more soothing and calming colour and hence associated with girls. It was only in the middle of the 20th century, around World War II, that this equation reversed when manufacturers and retailers arbitrarily decided on pink for girls and blue for boys.

The history of the association of pink and blue with male and female is particularly illuminating, as it shows how stereotypes take hold of the human imagination and appear fixed and ‘natural’ to the mind despite being socially constructed. Today when one looks at pink, it’s almost as if the colour itself exudes femininity; and the same goes for blue and its strong affinity with masculinity.

I’m sharing this anecdote about my nephew to exemplify just how insidious gender socialization is. I am also quite confident that several adults would have experienced nearly the same scenario. It was clearly a pervasive enough stereotype for my nephew to hold on to. Perhaps at some level gender stereotypes are the easiest to hold on to and perpetuate; the immediacy with which they help humans latch on to a certain identity is potent.

I recall this incident in light of my interview with Ariana Abadian-Heifetz, an educator and consultant on social-emotional learning (SEL), gender and sexuality and leadership development. She lived and worked in Gurgaon at Heritage Xperiential Learning School (HXLS) where she founded their acclaimed SEL programme. She is also the author of Spreading Your Wings, a body-positive graphic novel on menstrual health. Ariana is an American who belongs to a multi-cultural and multi-religious family. Her own experiences and reflections led her to “investigate what aspects of how we teach about gender causes girls and boys to be less free and less capable of creating healthy loving relationships with themselves and others.”

Here are some excerpts from my very insightful interview with her:

Simran: Can you say something about your experience of training students in thinking about gender in India?

Ariana: All people are born with questions about who they are, where they belong and what can they do to feel valuable. By explicitly working with children about gender at an early age, we help them to not feel boxed in by the restrictive definitions of gender – freer to be their authentic selves, feel all their feelings, form healthier friendships and see limitless options for their lives.

What adults often don’t realize is that children are internalizing these gender ‘instruction manuals’ (so to speak) at very young ages, so our continued silence on these topics simply ensures they unquestioningly absorb harmful messages about manhood and womanhood.

Our key goal is to help our students dissect and question the instruction manuals that they’ve received from various places – their parents, their favourite TV shows, their Bollywood role models, their religions, etc. – which teach them what it means to be a man and what it means to be a woman, and then help them begin the journey of developing their own sense of identity from their innate value systems.

For example, a boy is able to question the media around him that objectifies women, understand the larger impacts objectification has in creating a culture of violence against women, see how that comes in contrast with the value of equality that he cherishes, and begin proactively changing his own behaviours that previously normalized and encouraged objectification. As a result, he begins to redefine manhood in healthier ways – to mean that he stands up for equality and against objectification.

Simran: What is your sense of the gender sensitivity of teachers in India at present?

Ariana: Usually, there’s initial hesitance from adults in the community – a sense that the topic is important, but a denial that gender discrimination and violence is an issue in their classrooms and in upper class urban communities. There is a blindness to the rampant child abuse, domestic violence, sexual harassment, objectification taking place in all of our communities and that children at young ages already begin normalizing harmful ideas about gender.

For generations we’ve considered these ‘family’ or ‘personal matters,’ so people are used to suffering in silence and pretending the real issue exists primarily in rural, non-educated populations and that as educated adults we are not the issue. But enormous research shows that this is a myth. So the first hurdle is helping adults we work with to see that they too have subconscious gender biases. No matter how well educated a person thinks they are on these topics, there’s always more learning to do and there’s always more unlearning to do. So helping our adult community become more aware of their own subconscious stereotypes allows them to become more aware of all the little ways these are enforced in daily life. Then we help them make connections to how these seemingly harmless stereotypes have significant violent consequences on our society.

Simran: Can you share a little about the model for the SEL (Social-Emotional Learning) work that you have developed for Heritage School?

Ariana: The SEL framework that I have designed for HXLS is called the ‘Human Framework’. The goal is to develop more mindful and socially-aware children who have the skills to question and craft their identities, embrace complexity, navigate conflict constructively, honour the emotional wellness in themselves and others and interact with those who are different than themselves.

My key innovation to this SEL work is acknowledging that we exist in a larger social system that influences our identities and often instigates violence due to these identities. Thus, an essential part of creating a more peaceful world is ensuring that students have the capacities to analyze their social conditioning and their multiple identities.

Gender education is fundamental to SEL, because whether we like it or not, gender conditioning determines which social and emotional skills are appropriate for females to learn as they become women, and which skills are appropriate for males to learn as they become men. So in order for students to develop holistic social and emotional skills, they must simultaneously be able to dissect the gender pressures on them from society which stunt their social and emotional growth.

Simran: Given that gender stereotypes take hold of the imagination at a very young age, how do you suggest these stereotypes are interrogated by teachers?

Ariana: An easy and age-appropriate way to talk to kids about gender is simply through incorporating books into their reading routines that offer characters that don’t conform to gender norms. By providing role models through books, teachers can help expand a child’s imagination for what is possible for them and show a diversity of ways to express themselves. Adults can provide more female role models for girls who don’t fit the typical box – pioneers in science, chemistry, athletics, diplomats, journalists, philosophers. Provide male role models who don’t fit the traditional man box – men who speak up as peacemakers, homemakers, nurses, teachers, and feminist activists.

Additionally, there are books that more explicitly tackle the issues that come up for kids when they try to challenge gender norms. For example, we use I Love My Colourful Nails and Jacob’s New Dress, which are both about young boys who seek to express themselves through means that are traditionally restricted to only girls. While reading these books, teachers can ask their students: “Do you think it was right for them to get bullied?” and “Why can’t nail colour or dresses be for boys too? Who decides these kinds of rules?”

As children are provided opportunities to question these gender rules and are offered exceptions to them, they begin to conclude for themselves that it’s not okay to police others to adhere to these rules and that they themselves can be more free to express themselves. Teachers can also affirm that each person is wonderfully unique and just because someone is born with different body parts does not predict their qualities or what they like – “Just like we can’t predict what a person will be like based on what colour eyes they have, we can’t predict what a person will be like based on if they are a boy or a girl.”

Also due to how gender-segregated the world still is there are ample opportunities to simply question our students’ assumptions as the topic comes up naturally. For example, during play time a teacher might say, “Some toys say they are for girls and other toys are for boys, but some toys say they are for everyone. What do you think makes something a girl’s toy versus a boy’s toy? Why is this?” The important thing is to encourage our students to critically question gender norms so that they don’t become bullies or internalize shame due to their own desire to not conform.

Feminists distinguish between ‘sex’ and ‘gender’. And this is in fact a crucial distinction to make. While ‘sex’ is biological, ‘gender’ is cultural. ‘Gender’ refers to the social and cultural ways in which we distinguish between the sexes; the practices that we associate with either sex that come to seem ‘natural’ to us. What is the problem with gender distinctions between girls and boys, you might ask? The problem is first, these differences are not innate or natural, but in fact cultural and social. Second, these differences translate into a differential experience for males and females, limiting the experiences and development of both. In essence, we restrict the capacity for people to develop their full humanity. And third, the differences are value-laden; meaning that all that is associated with the male comes to be valued more than what is associated with the female. Each of these points to the critical and urgent need for us to question our social, cultural, personal, and pedagogical practices to see if they are gendered.

We work in education with the belief and hope of a better tomorrow. However, things can only move in the direction of real change when we are able to see the problems in and around us. The example of pink and blue is perhaps one of the most innocuous and harmless examples of a gender stereotype. There are far more dangerous and limiting ideas that children pick up from society, which get solidified in their minds and then when they grow up they too become adults who impose limits on those around them – both children and other adults. Treat this as a call to action to become more alert to the harmful aspects of gender conditioning and to take concerted actions to create a gender-equal world.

The author is based in Pune and is currently pursuing her PhD. in Education from TISS, Mumbai. She has completed her Masters in English from Jadavpur University and Masters in Education (Elementary) from TISS, Mumbai, and taught Hindi at Stanford University, California while on a Fulbright fellowship. She is passionate about language, social studies education, human rights, gender and teacher education in particular. She can be reached at simranluthra@gmail.com.

*Ariana is a sexuality education facilitator, has conducted research and worked across the United States, Guatemala, and India. She designs curriculum, conducts teacher and parent trainings and facilitates student sessions with a focus on creating healthier, emotionally intelligent and socially responsible individuals who have the freedom to craft their identities and are empowered to dismantle systems of injustice.

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